At its most basic, pseudoscience is fake science. The prefix pseudo- meaning “fake”- followed by the word science. But it’s more than that. Or, I should say, it’s not just that. Pseudoscience involves more than faking science, it often involves the perpetuation of concepts and ideas that are not scientific but presented as such or, very often, believed as such. Good examples are “ufology” and “complimentary and alternative medicine.” I place both within the inverted commas carefully so as not to unintentionally give either the legitimacy it doesn’t deserve.
“Ufology” is purported to be the study of UFOs, that is to say: flying saucers and space aliens. The effort has a rather large following, and even some who could be considered scientists -if only marginally. The physicist Stanton Friedman comes to mind, though I’m not sure if he’s conducted any research in his field beyond the graduate level since the 1960s or 1970s. Followers of “ufology” go to great lengths to appear scientific and most are probably under the mistaken premise that they are adhering to scientific methods -but nearly every single one begins with a conclusion and then seeks to fit data within the boundaries of those conclusions. Omitted are reams of data that fall outside these boundaries: explained sitings; the fallibility of human memory and perception; the possibilities of explanations which are far more parsimonious and prosaic; etc. Included are those data which offer confirmation of the bias and fallaciously argue from and against authority and ignorance.
“Complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM)” proponents argue that evidence-based medicine is no better or worse than treatments and remedies that have little to no evidentiary basis. Often there exists, as with the case of certain herbal treatments and acupuncture, negative evidence for the efficacy of these treatments. Yet “CAM” proponents persist in creating hysteria and undue skepticism of evidence-based medicine in spite of the scientifically controlled testing involved in approving real medicines for health applications. “CAM” proponents seek to minimize the rigors of science and double-blind testing by asserting that their treatments and remedies are either “complimentary” to evidence-based medicine or “alternative” to it. But there is no alternative to evidence-based medicine. Either it’s science or it isn’t. Either there’s good reason to accept the efficacy of a given treatment or there isn’t. And if there isn’t, then a real patient’s real life can be at risk by applying a fake resolution.
In each of these examples, not everyone who buys into UFOs and echinacea would necessarily be called pseudoscientists, since they didn’t actually devise the arguments of the pseudoscience they consider to have merit. These people are simply gullible until they begin asserting and attempt improvements upon the arguments.
In an old, but updated, post at John Hawks’ blog, John discussed the “aquatic ape” theory of human bipedalism, which was argued by Elain Morgan for a talk at TED. As an hypothesis, “aquatic ape” itself isn’t pseudoscientific. It has the same potential as any other hypothesis to be scientific. The problem is, just about everything Morgan discussed has been explained or rendered irrelevant by new data. Another blog that goes into detail with tihs is Ad Hominem, a wonderful blog on human evolution and skepticism. The idea only truly becomes pseudoscientific once Morgan ignores the data and arguments that successfully refute the hypothesis without refuting the data and counter-refuting the arguments. Instead, she appears to stick with the same arguments of the original hypothesis before science ruled it out. “Aquatic ape” still remains an hypothesis for human bipedalism, it just hasn’t any traction or enough evidence to support it as viable at this time. Perhaps that might change in the future with new data and I, like every anthropologist I know, will happily revise their opinions should that happen (okay, perhaps “happily” is going to an extreme… but they would eventually revise their opinions with the advent of fresh evidence if only to give the idea more credence.
What inspired me to write this post was a short passage from an article that I read on John Hawk’s blog:
Every statement of natural causes is potentially scientific. What distinguishes science from pseudoscience is social. Pseudoscience is asserted by assertions of authority, by rejection or ignorance of pertinent tests, by supporters who take on the trappings of scientific argument without accepting science’s basic rules of refutation and replication. Pseudoscience is driven by charismatic personalities who do not answer direct questions. When held by those in power, like Lysenkoism, it destroys honest scientific inquiry. When held by a minority, it pleads persecution.
John said in just a few sentences what I’ve been struggling to define for a few years with mixed success. Thanks John.
This same pattern of pseudoscience can be seen in archaeological topics that range from so-called “out of place artifacts” (popularized by Cremo) to the Bosnian Pyramid; from alleged ruins off the coast of Yonaguni, Japan to claims that the pyramids of Giza are over 10,000 years old.
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- TED Talk: Elaine Morgan says we evolved from aquatic apes (boingboing.net)
- Elaine Morgan at TEDGlobal 2009: Running notes on Session 6 (ted.com)
- Aquatic Apes (andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com)
- Oh, no, not the Aquatic Ape hypothesis! (scienceblogs.com)
- Oh, no! Orac the “Scientific Fundamentalist” has been too insolent! (scienceblogs.com)